Making Government Work

How Mobile Apps Help Local Governments Connect with Citizens

June 17, 2014
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How Mobile Apps Help Local Governments Connect with Citizens
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
Boston's Citizens Connect and Philadelphia's 311 encourage civic engagement.

As Apple has taught us, for every daily issue we face — be it finding the name of a song or tracking a run — there’s an app for that.

And as more cities begin exploring the benefits of digital tools, mobile apps are quickly becoming a platform for civic engagement as well.

More Americans are more mobile than ever before, with 90 percent of the population toting a cell phone and more than half using a smartphone, the Pew Research Center finds. The phone, as government officials have found, is the quickest way to connect with local residents when it comes to anything from crime alerts to voting reminders. Which is why cities including Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago are tapping into Silicon Valley’s playbook in an effort to reconnect with residents.

Pioneering civic technologies is Boston, which has been touted as the first city to use a mobile app — Citizens Connect — to plug into its community. Launched in 2009, the app is designed similar to the city’s 311 hotline: Residents can report problems like potholes or graffiti by snapping a photo, tagging the location, and sending a report through the app. Users receive a tracking number and can monitor when the city fixes the issue. Authorities sometimes take as little as a day to send a response. Other cities have followed suit, including Philadelphia’s 311 and Mobile Citizen in Oakland, California.

Now, five years after launching Citizens Connect, Boston is again trailblazing civic technologies with the creation of the Design Action Research with Government (DARG) initiative.

The city office teamed up with Eric Gordon, director of the Engagement Game Laboratory at Emerson College, who examines how games and social media can impact urban life and democratic processes. Through DARG, Gordon and city officials will use a step-by-step approach to figure out what civic behavior is in need of change and what are the best tools to achieve that, according to Governing.

“It’s all about asking the right questions prior to deploying a civic app, so that the focus isn’t so much on absolute success or failure but finding insight or knowledge that a city can use,” said Gordon.

For example, officials found 38 percent of Citizens Connect users never used the app to look at other reports about the city, while the app generated little social media activity. While it’s important to see more governments use tools like Instagram to engage residents, Boston officials understand social media can play a much bigger role in community development.

“We keep asking ourselves: How do we know if we actually are impacting peoples’ lives?” said Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.

Through DARG, Boston has launched Street Cred, an app directed toward measuring users civic engagement through a score based on their activities, akin to Klout.

Should the DARG evaluation be successful, Boston hopes to apply it to other civic apps cropping up. But Boston isn’t the only city aiming to connect with residents. Smaller cities are catching on, using apps like SeeClickFix, which supports setting up and connecting neighborhood watch groups with authorities; PublicStuff, an app similar to Citizens Connect that helps residents report issues directly to government officials; and Street Bump, which targets potholes and road pavement issues.

And more recently, the launch of  iCitizen is directed toward not only increasing civic engagement but also quelling voter apathy. Users can aggregate information from different media outlets about a variety of political issues on the app, serving as a nonpartisan, fact-based platform to inform citizens,  Politico reports.

“Everything from resilience to health and economic vitality of a city is tied to how well people are engaged,” said Jacob. “It’s in everyone’s best interests to encourage people to report their concerns and become engaged. We want to encourage that behavior.”

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